“Recommended to readers with strong constitutions!” – Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

IMG_2022-6-26-191559Moshfegh’s fourth novel is a tragi-comic medieval farce set in a village (the titular Lapvona) in the foothills of a small mountain range, where the peasantry are in thrall to their indolent lord, Villiam, and his corrupt priest, Barnabas. When Marek, the local village idiot and deformed son of Jude the shepherd – accidentally kills Villiam’s heir, Jacob, everyone’s lives are thrown into chaos: there’s drought, famine, the dead rising up, and the Second Coming of Christ, and the hapless Marek is at the befuddled centre of it all.

If Death in her Hands represented a retreat from the East Coast urban grotesquery of both Eileen and, in its own peculiar drugged-up way, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, then Lapvona absents itself entirely from the U.S.A. and its disillusioned modern young folk: this novel, like Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or Niall Burke’s The Line, has raised its sights to loftier targets—power and religion and purity and revenge. It’s allegorical rather than realistic—though the characters are sketched out in as violent and unflinching detail as those of Cormac McCarthy—and through the domino-effect of Marek’s ill-fated encounter with Jacob, Moshfegh shows us how uncritical thinking and blind faith in social hierarchies leads to Bad Places.

It’s a great read, if you have the stomach for it: there’s murder and rape, coprophagia and cannibalism, self-flagellation, and general misuse of power. The priest is a charlatan; the lord is an amoral fantasist. What love exists here (Dibra and Luka; Jude and his ‘babes’, the lambs; Jon and Vuna; Marek and his parents) is compromised by, at best, a dearth of hope for a better life, and, at worst, lies and abuse. Every potential redemptive moment or character or encounter disappoints – though it’s in these disappointments that the real guts and verve of Moshfegh’s writing is to be found: the world is full of shit, she’s suggesting, and the people will either eat that shit or make others eat it for their viewing pleasure, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. It’s easy to draw parallels to contemporary society, with the U.S. Christian right gaining power and taking a slash and burn approach to reproductive rights, though, of course, corruption and the Church isn’t a topic unique to Moshfegh. Her take on it is compelling, though, and amongst all the grim detail, it’s a very funny book: Villiam is Nero crossed with Henry VIII crossed with Trump, and his lunacy offers a needed counterpoint to the depressive moods of almost everybody else. The setting is, perhaps, a little tired— the evocation of a vaguely Eastern European locale is too easy, and makes for an uncomfortable implication, in the association of the East with gullibility and a lack of sophistication—but Lapvona is distinguished from its geographic neighbours, none of which seem quite so gullible, quite so vulnerable.

Any Cop?: I would hope for a return to the contemporary with her next offering, but it’s always excellent to see a writer tread new ground. Recommended to readers with strong constitutions!

Valerie O’Riordan

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